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posted by Fnord666 on Friday July 27 2018, @03:37AM   Printer-friendly
from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong? dept.

China's Plan to Seize a Near-Earth Asteroid Sounds Surprisingly Feasible

For centuries, humans have extracted minerals from the Earth with reckless abandon, but it's only a matter of time before our desire for gold, platinum, iron, tungsten, and other useful ores will exceed our planet's ability to provide them. But what if we could look beyond Earth for the raw materials we need to power the engines of industry? We'll spare you the disingenuous prattle about how this sounds like a sci-fi movie, because the fact of the matter is asteroid mining is right over the horizon, and a group of Chinese scientists is already trying to figure out how to snag a near-Earth asteroid out of space to harvest all its goodies on Earth.

"Sounds like science-fiction, but I believe it can be realized," Li Mingtao, Ph.D., a researcher at the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, tells Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua. Li and his colleagues introduced their plan at a competition in Shenzhen in which participants proposed innovative future technologies.

Their plan, which involves a constellation of satellites in an orbit around the sun that would search for asteroids, wrap a massive bag around an asteroid, and ferry it back to Earth, has significant engineering obstacles. Even once they get a spacecraft to intercept an asteroid and envelop it in some kind of strong material, they'll still have to get it here. That's where a giant, unfolding heat shield comes in, to keep the asteroid from burning up upon reentry. It may sound crazy, but it's just one of many equally ambitious ideas floating around in the asteroid mining field. And as far as asteroid mining schemes go, it sounds pretty reasonable.

So far, Li and his team have been working with the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology, under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, to identify a suitable target, reports Xinhua. This will likely be a near-Earth asteroid about 30 feet in diameter. Even a small asteroid would be hard to wrangle, but it could still potentially contain billions of dollars worth of precious metals.

I'm envisioning two ways of getting asteroid chunks down to Earth without burning them up: either a controlled landing of a small portion (tens or hundreds of tons) of minerals using a BFR or other reusable rocket, or diverting a heat-shielded asteroid (or small chunk of one) into Earth orbit and then controlling its descent. Possibly into a desert instead of an ocean.

Related: Luxembourg Announces Investment in Asteroid Mining
NASA Asteroid Mission -- Metals "Worth" Ten Thousand Quadrillion Dollars
Asteroid Mining Could Begin in 10-20 Years
"Mission Success" for Arkyd-6 Asteroid Prospecting Demonstration Spacecraft (Planetary Resources has since run dry on funding)

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  • (Score: 2) by realDonaldTrump on Friday July 27 2018, @04:20AM (3 children)

    by realDonaldTrump (6614) on Friday July 27 2018, @04:20AM (#713549) Homepage Journal

    Our economy is growing tremendously -- new numbers coming out Friday at 8:30am ET. So we need all the beautiful Clean Coal we can get. Whether it comes from outer space or right here on Earth!

    Starting Score:    1  point
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    Total Score:   2  
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 27 2018, @04:27AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 27 2018, @04:27AM (#713550)

    So we need all the beautiful Clean Coal we can get.

    Well, buy some from China, I hear everything coming from there is cheap.

  • (Score: 3, Funny) by martyb on Friday July 27 2018, @03:32PM (1 child)

    by martyb (76) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 27 2018, @03:32PM (#713709) Journal

    So we need all the beautiful Clean Coal we can get. Whether it comes from outer space or right here on Earth!

    That got me to thinking. What if this asteroid was composed entirely of anthracite coal and it was plummeting straight to Earth?

    TFA mentions "a near-Earth asteroid about 30 feet in diameter"; let's call that 10 meters in diameter, or 5 meters in radius.

    The volume of a sphere is: 4/3 * Π * r^3

    Given a radius of 5 meters, that comes to approximate 523 cubic meters.

    The density of coal [] varies; for anthracite coal it's 800-929 kg/m^3.

    Let's choose a round number of 900kg/m^3. With 523 cubic meters of coal, that works out to about 471,000 kg.

    Now let's have some fun...

    The energy density of coal [] "is roughly 24 megajoules per kilogram".

    That puts us at 11.3 million MJ or 11.3 terajoules.

    The energy content of TNT []: "The energy density of TNT is used as a reference-point for many other explosives, including nuclear weapons, the energy content of which is measured in equivalent kilotons (~4.184 terajoules)".

    So, we're looking at about 2.7 kilotons of TNT. (By comparison, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were about 16 and 21 kilotons, respectively).

    So, it's on the small size for a thermonuclear device, but I still would not want to be anywhere near its approach!

    [Please feel free to verify the math and provide corrections... that was a quick pass through and I need to hurry to get ready for work, so don't have time to double check everything.]

    Thanks for the thought experiment!

    Wit is intellect, dancing.
    • (Score: 2) by martyb on Friday July 27 2018, @03:42PM

      by martyb (76) Subscriber Badge on Friday July 27 2018, @03:42PM (#713713) Journal

      Doh! I completely forgot about the kinetic energy involved in dropping a 471 metric ton rock from outer space; the above calculation only made use of the intrinsic energy of a chunk of coal of that size.

      I would imagine the kinetic energy would be vastly greater.

      Wit is intellect, dancing.